The Western Wall deal, which was meant to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the Jewish holy site, is officially back on the table. On Sunday, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai submitted a request to the cabinet secretary for a vote by the cabinet on reinstating the agreement at its next weekly meeting.
The Western Wall deal had been approved in January 2016 by a previous government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. It was suspended nearly a year and a half later due to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, which threatened to leave the governing coalition if it were implemented.
The deal called for enlarging the existing egalitarian prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall and making it more visible and accessible to worshippers. It also called for the establishment of a special authority that would be responsible for running the space and include representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements.
The agreement was meant to provide a solution to the ongoing clashes at the main gender-segregated section of the Western Wall between ultra-Orthodox worshippers and the Women of the Wall, a multidenominational feminist prayer group that holds a monthly service there. Participants in the Women of the Wall service often wear prayer shawls and phylacteries – much to the outrage of the ultra-Orthodox. Leaders of the feminist prayer group had agreed to transfer their monthly prayer service from the Orthodox gender-segregated space to the egalitarian space if and when the Western Wall agreement is implemented.
Its revocation in June 2017 sparked fierce anger in the Jewish world, particularly within the Reform and Conservative communities, driving a deep wedge between Israel and the Diaspora.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett requesting that the deal be reinstated, Diaspora Affairs Minister Shai wrote: “The Western Wall is a place of prayer for all the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, and the government must immediately guarantee the right to egalitarian prayer at the southern plaza.” He added that “much valuable time” had passed without the agreement being implemented.
Shai’s proposal, details of which were obtained by Haaretz, calls for the full implementation of the initial agreement beginning in 2022. Considering that the ultra-Orthodox parties are not part of the current governing coalition, Shai’s proposal is expected to pass relatively easily. Prime Minister Bennett, who served as Diaspora affairs minister when it was first approved, had been an enthusiastic supporter from the start.
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On Sunday, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, also urged Bennett to revive the agreement. “Regretfully, in recent years, there has been no communication whatsoever between the Prime Minister’s Office and the organizations and movements that use the egalitarian prayer space,” said Kariv, who served as executive director of the Reform movement in Israel before being elected to the Knesset as a member of the Labor Party. “The previous government also avoided taking any measures against those who disrupted prayers at the egalitarian space, some of them egged on by rabbis who are on the public payroll,” he said in a statement.
About a month and a half ago, hundreds of right-wing, Orthodox Jews, mostly teenagers, disrupted a Tisha B’Av megillah reading service held at the egalitarian space by the Conservative movement.